The prefects were released from duty and all fled upstairs to the prefects' room where they disposed themselves round the long table, ready for their meeting. Josette sat at the head with Clare on one side of her and Gwen on the other. The rest sat very much as they chose.
"Special duties first." Josette said when they were all settled. "You know what they are - library, stationery, hobbies, art, music, staff, lost property and bank. We're having a special pree for lost property this year. The Head told me so when I went for interview before prep. The others are second prefects for the bigger things like games and library. Maeve is editress, anyhow, so we don't have to worry about the magazine. Here are the slips with each job heading them. Fill in your choice for each and before I forget, remember that Gwen, Clare, Maeve and I aren't available for anything else. We'll have our hands full enough as it is."
(Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Ruey Richardson - Chaletian, 1960, p42)
Within the world of the
Chalet School, there is a clearly-defined power structure. Younger girls
are expected to obey older girls so long as orders are just,
with prefects having ultimate power among the pupils. Prefects are responsible
to the staff; the staff are responsible to the headmistress(es). Madge,
after she retires as head, retains ultimate control, first as the owner
of the school and then as head of the limited company which takes it over.
Issues of health form the only exception to this structure; the Head Matron
"Matey" has the right to over-ride the orders of any character
except a doctor.
The school therefore functions as an autonomous all-female
community, with girls and women holding all the positions of power. However,
men retain much of the control in matters external to the school. The majority
of these men are doctors, and in this role men also have the ultimate power
of determining whether a character lives or dies when he or she (usually
she) is seriously ill. Even when male characters are servants, and so are
socially and educationally inferior to Madge and the headmistresses, they
have a physical power which these particular female characters lack.
Thus it is possible to interpret the series as one which offers a construction
of feminine power that is strictly circumscribed and confined to "feminine"
concerns, and to a certain extent this is true. However, further analysis
reveals a less clear-cut picture, as I will now demonstrate.
Certainly Chalet School pupils are the characters who
have least power in the series. However, this simplistic analysis disguises
two important facts. First, the girls have a great deal of control over
their own lives, far more perhaps than pupils at real middle-class girls'
schools ever achieved. Second, the bulk of the texts are devoted to the
pupils' activities, allowing for this control to be given greater prominence
in the series than its position in the power structure would suggest. It
is the autonomy of the pupils rather than their subordinate position which
is stressed to the reader.
From the beginning of the series girls are expected to
take control of much of the internal discipline of the school themselves,
under the auspices of the prefects. The first explicit occasion is early
in the first book, The School at the Chalet (1925), when the prefects
meet to discuss how to deal with Juliet Carrick and Grizel Cochrane, who
have challenged the prefects' authority (Brent-Dyer, 1925, pp48-53). When
Grizel refuses the prefects' summons, Madge intervenes and makes the prefects'
power explicit to both pupils and the readers: "I will allow no rudeness
from you younger children to my Prefects. You had better understand that
at once. Ask their pardon, and then do whatever they give you for punishment."
(Brent-Dyer, 1925, p54).
The fact that the prefects' power is granted to them by the school, and could therefore be taken away, is not disguised. Prefects are often described as the "Head's representatives" (eg Brent-Dyer, 1953a, p172); and this is given as one reason why they deserve to be treated with obedience and politeness. However, Brent-Dyer constantly stresses that the pupils hold the prefects in more awe than they do the staff, showing that the authority which the prefects possess is real. For example, in Lavender Laughs in the Chalet School (1943), Lavender's form is determined to punish her for her anti-social behaviour and pupils suggest not speaking to her, but are concerned that the staff and prefects will think they are being rude.
Dora sounded as if the prefects would be the worst of it, and if you had asked Lower Third, they would probably have assured you that it was. Not one of them wouldn't rather encounter Bill at her most sarcastic than a prefect. As the Head was wont to say, their own generation kept them far more in awe than even the most formidable of the staff. (Brent-Dyer, 1943, p71)
The prefects are responsible for upholding the school
rules and ethos and for punishing all but the most serious transgressions
on the occasions when they, rather than staff members, become aware of
these first. The prefects decide on the form of punishment, which like
the incidents which precipitate punishments often function in the plot
as amusing interludes which serve to change the mood of the story.
(Unlike real and fictional middle-class boys' schools, corporal punishment
is never used in the Chalet School, by staff or prefects.) For example,
in Shocks for the Chalet School (1952), Emerence Hope had hidden
in the prefects' cupboard in order to overhear their meeting, but has fallen
asleep and been locked in their room. She is only discovered after she
has been missed at supper and is heard banging wildly (Brent-Dyer, 1952b,
pp121-123). The prefects punish her by making her clean out all their cupboards,
which takes all of her spare time for six days (Brent-Dyer, 1952b, p124).
Both the crime and the punishment are perceived as comic by the prefects
and, presumably, by Brent-Dyer. However, the incident is also taken very
seriously; there is no suggestion that this type of challenge to authority
is not wrong.
The prefects' power is not confined to maintaining discipline,
but extends to controlling other school activities. For example, although
the Head appoints the Head Girl and the prefects, the prefects themselves
decide on how their power will be shared, often by voting on who is to
take responsibility for individual tasks such as running the library (eg
Brent-Dyer, 1933, pp19-22; Brent-Dyer, 1952b, pp46-50). (On one occasion
they also decide who will be the new sub-prefect, when Julie Lucy becomes
ill [Brent-Dyer, 1953a, pp134-142].) They decide on the form of the annual
school sale, and organise the Hobbies nights where the girls produce the
sale goods (eg Brent-Dyer, 1953a, pp188-197; Brent-Dyer, 1955b, pp95-111).
The Games Prefect, rather than the Games mistress, is responsible for choosing
the school teams (eg Brent-Dyer, 1952a, pp98-94; Brent-Dyer, 1953b, pp116-124).
Similarly, the prefects are not the only girls in the school who have power;
to a limited extent all the girls have some control over both their own
lives and those of their peers.
For example, when the Head, Miss Annersley, sees that
Lavender is being punished by her peers, she decides not to interfere,
and "wondered if the girls' handling would have any better effect
than her own" (Brent-Dyer, 1943, p79). The ability of girls to punish
anti-social behaviour covers not just recalcitrant pupils, but also members
of staff. For example, in The Princess of the Chalet School (1927),
the girls form the S.S.M. - the Society for the Suppression of Matron -
members making the vow that "I will do everything in my power to make
our present Matron's life a burden to her, and to make her leave us"
(Brent-Dyer, 1927, p35). In carrying out these vows the members of the
S.S.M. play tricks on the temporary Matron. They finally achieve their
aims after they decide to talk very loudly all the time, pretending that
they have been influenced by Matron's loud voice. Madge, who is known to
believe that women should speak clearly but quietly, then sacks Matron
(Brent-Dyer, 1927, pp41-50).
Brent-Dyer describes a similar episode in The New House
at the Chalet School (1935), where the S.S.M. is revived to tackle
a new Matron. On this occasion, Brent-Dyer uses the episode to point to
the limitations of Matron's power: Joey and her peers successfully challenge
Matron's rulings on early morning reading, visiting other Houses and taking
unaccompanied walks when Miss Wilson, the Head and "Matey" uphold
their right to these privileges (eg Brent-Dyer, 1935, pp48-55; pp86-90;
p102). Later in the series, in Gay from China at
the Chalet School (1944), Gay runs away when temporary Head Miss Bubb
refuses to let her go home to say goodbye to her brother, who is travelling
overseas. Gay's action is supported by two local villagers as well as other
members of staff, and Miss Bubb is sacked (Brent-Dyer, 1944, pp12-15).
Brent-Dyer thus makes very clear that
girls concur in the operation of the school's power structure. Power is
not simply imposed upon the girls; and in extreme circumstances they have
the right to reject individual rulings when these are seen to be unjust.
On other occasions, if the staff later find that they have scolded or punished
a girl unjustly, staff are expected to apologise: "'And that's the
beauty of our staff!' thought Gillian . . . 'They are so fair. And if they
think they've been wrong they always say so. No wonder this is such a glorious
school!'" (Brent-Dyer, 1944, p148). The rules operate to give girls
rights and to protect them from abuse of power by others, as well as to
give prefects and staff power over the girls.
A dramatic example
of girls' power in the series is given in Carola Storms the Chalet School
(1951). Carola Johnstone is determined to become a pupil at the Chalet
School rather than continue to travel with her cousin - "Go to Jamaica
she would not!" (Brent-Dyer, 1951a, p8). She manages to obtain the
basics of the Chalet School uniform, slips away from her cousin at the
docks as they are about to board a cruise ship and makes her way to the
school, eventually joining the school coach. When her deception is discovered,
she manages to persuade both her parents, who are working abroad, and the
school, to let her stay. Thus it is Carola, rather than her guardian, her
parents or even the school, who decides how and where she will live and
how she will be educated. Carola therefore controls her own life.
In fact, all of the pupils are to a greater or lesser extent independent of their families and gain in power as a result. First, they are at a boarding school, living independently from their families, and Brent-Dyer makes it clear that the girls regard this independence as an advantage. For example, in The Chalet School and Barbara (1954) Barbara tells her elder sister Beth:
"Oh, I have been so looking forward to school at
last! You simply can't think!"
Beth regarded her young sister thoughtfully. "I wonder how you'll really like it? You've never been away from Mummy in your life before."
"But that's just it! Don't you see, Beth? I've never been anywhere in my life away from her since I could remember." (Brent-Dyer, 1954b, p6)
Second, parents and other
relatives are seldom mentioned apart from the period when new girls are
introduced. Third, many of the girls come from non-traditional families.
Joey herself is orphaned at a very early age and is brought up by Madge,
and both later informally adopt the Robin as another sister. Madge also
cares for three of Dick's children, Peggy, Rix and Bride, from infancy
until they are in their teens, as Dick is working in India, a climate thought
to be unsuitable for white children. Joey and Madge both care for Jem's
sister's children, Daisy and Primula, after Jem's sister dies, and when
Jo has her own family she also becomes guardian to five other children.
Many of the other girls, such as Flora and Fiona McDonald, Gay Lambert,
Jacynth Hardy, Lavender Leigh, Gwensi Howell and Katherine Gordon are brought
up by relatives other than their parents, and other girls such as Mary-Lou
and Verity-Anne come from single parent families. In some families, for
example Gay Lambert's and the Bettanys', girls are living with relatives
because their mothers wish to live and/or work abroad with their husbands.
Girls' independence from their families thus allows their mothers greater
freedom of choice about where to live.
Brent-Dyer portrays family bonds as very loose, with living arrangements decided by convenience. Girls are not automatically assumed to live with their parents. Girls seldom miss their families, and homesickness is shown to be undesirable. For example, in The Chalet School and Richenda (1958), Odette Mercier is still homesick four weeks after the beginning of term, and the girls are concerned, but do not empathise with her. Len Maynard says:
"If that's what's wrong then she ought to be getting over it by this time. We've been back at school a month now and she ought to be feeling more at home. We can't let that sort of thing go on, you know. The silly kid will end by making herself ill and a nice name that'ud get the school! . . . for one thing we can try to make her see how jolly lucky she is to be here." (Brent-Dyer, 1958b, p79)
The girls are more concerned with the school's reputation
than with Odette's feelings, which the girls see as "silly".
When Brent-Dyer does describe pupils' family relationships,
these are often portrayed as extremely problematic. Girls have to resolve
tensions within their families, tensions usually caused by their parents
or guardians, or to come to terms with these. Where girls are described
as being in the wrong, it is usually parents or guardians who are to blame.
For example, in the first book of the series, The School at the Chalet
(1925), Grizel Cochrane and Juliet Carrick are both difficult girls, often
rude and disobedient. But Grizel "had realised she was decidedly an
unwanted member of the Cochrane family"; her mother having died when
she was five, after which Grizel was sent to live with her grandmother
for five years. Later her father remarried without telling his wife he
had a daughter, and his wife rejected Grizel (Brent-Dyer, 1925, p11). "By
slow degrees the wilful, high-spirited child gradually became a frightened,
nervous creature, who did as she was bidden with a painful readiness. Later
she became the excuse for many 'scenes'" (Brent-Dyer, 1925, p12).
Grizel improves under Madge's care, but grows up a bitter
and hard woman after her father and stepmother refuse to allow her to train
for the career she wishes to follow, forcing her to become a music teacher
instead. Later Grizel's anger results in a bad accident involving Len Maynard
and Carola Johnstone when Grizel's stepmother, a trustee of her inheritance,
refuses to allow Grizel to go into business with an old friend (Brent-Dyer,
1951a, pp149-153). Juliet Carrick is abandoned twice by her parents (Brent-Dyer,
1925, pp93-94), and later becomes Madge's ward after they are killed (p180).
Herr Marani, the father of another pupil, tells Madge that "He [Juliet's
father] is not worthy of the name of either 'man' or 'father'!" (Brent-Dyer,
Juliet is "deeply grateful" for Madge's kind
treatment, "and since she was thorough in whatever she did, she was
making valiant efforts to become the same sporting type of girl as that
to which her headmistress belonged" (Brent-Dyer, 1925, p159). The
fallibility of parents and guardians and their responsibility for many
of the girls' problems continues to be a theme throughout the "Chalet
School" series. These problems are resolved - or girls come to terms
with these problems - after girls enter the Chalet School and are therefore
more independent and personally powerful. This means that the theme is
most prominent when new characters enter the series.
For example, Brent-Dyer begins Eustacia Goes to the Chalet School (1930):
There is no disguising the fact that Eustacia Benson was the most arrant little prig that ever existed. Her father, a learned professor of Greek, and mother, a doctor, both had great theories on how to bring up children, and to these they subjected their only child . . . We have little difficulty in guessing the effect of those theories when we meet Eustacia for the first time . . . sitting in the drawing-room at her Aunt Margery's, looking round it with a superior air, and mentally deciding how she would re-arrange the room, should it be given over to her. (Brent-Dyer, 1930, p5)
At this point Eustacia's parents are both dead, and Brent-Dyer
makes it clear that it is Eustacia's own responsibility to change and fit
into the community. Where relatives are still alive, girls need to escape
from them (eg Brent-Dyer, 1950a, pp187-190) or become reconciled with them
(eg Brent-Dyer, 1958b, pp151-153). During the course of the series many
other new characters are described as behaving badly due to parental upbringing,
including the Balbini twins (Brent-Dyer, 1938, p229); Gwensi Howell (Brent-Dyer,
1941, p10); Lavender Leigh (Brent-Dyer, 1943, p37); Clem and Tony Barras
(Brent-Dyer, 1949, p292); Rita Anderson (Brent-Dyer, 1951b, p18); and Emerence
Hope (Brent-Dyer, 1952b, p9). (It is possible that Brent-Dyer was reflecting
concerns about parenting here that she had developed as a result of her
teaching experiences.) Once these characters change their behaviour and
learn to fit into the community their relatives become irrelevant, and
are seldom mentioned again. Brent-Dyer therefore portrays parents and guardians
as potentially fallible and guilty with a consequential loss of power over
the girls. Girls lose the responsibility for their own bad behaviour, but
are granted the power to change when they escape from family influence
and move into the Chalet School community.
However, Brent-Dyer also makes it clear that, as with
members of staff, girls must obey their parents - concede them power -
when parents are just. Parents have to teach their children correctly,
children have to obey them. Both Madge and Jo are described as good mothers
because they teach their children carefully and strictly. For example,
in The Chalet School and Jo (1931), former pupil Gisela tells Jo
that: "Madame is such a wonderful mother with David. . . I mean to
model myself on her. He is so well-trained already, though he is only a
baby" (Brent-Dyer, 1931, p12). Later in the series school secretary
Rosalie Dene says to Miss Annersley that Jo "really does try to see
straight with her children. She once told me that she didn't dare do anything
else since her training now would make all the difference to them in the
future" (Brent-Dyer, 1952b, p6). Con Maynard confirms this to Mary-Lou
when they first meet: "When Mamma rings we've got to go at once .
. . We always do, else it's disobeying, and Mamma says that's one of the
naughtiest things we can do" (Brent-Dyer, 1949, p320).
Power is also described in class forms. The school is largely middle-class, with the exception of a handful of titled pupils in its early days, the most important of whom is Elisaveta, Crown Princess of Belsornia (Brent-Dyer, 1927), and a few working class pupils, who are discussed most prominently in A Problem for the Chalet School (1956). Previous critics of girls' school stories have noted that the stories' location in private schools partially accounts for the 'demise' of the genre (which as I have shown in Parts One and Two has not actually taken place). Cadogan and Craig describe the fictional schools as constituting "en masse an enclave of privilege" (1976, p179), while Frith writes that:
Set in that institution which is so clearly a product and reflection of bourgeois capitalism, and a most effective instrument in its perpetuation - the private boarding school - school stories are complacent about class privilege, inherited wealth and xenophobia. Exclusive, expensive and enclosed, they represent a sealed, rigidly hierarchical world in which "normality" is white and middle-class. (Steedman, Urwin and Walkerdine, 1985, p115)
While the above statement is more true of authors such
as Enid Blyton than of Brent-Dyer, Brent-Dyer does portray the Chalet School
as superior to local state-funded educational establishments. For example,
in Three Go to the Chalet School (1949) Len tells Mary-Lou that
she is sure to be entered for the Chalet School because "There isn't
any other near 'cept the village school; and you won't go there" (Brent-Dyer,
1949, p321). Similarly Lala Winterton explains that she and her sister
have not been to school before because "it would have meant the village
school where you learn't nothing - except broad Yorkshire" (Brent-Dyer,
1950b, p12). "Broad Yorkshire", of course, is spoken by working-class
girls, and is seen to be inappropriate for Lala and her sister because
their father is a journalist, a member of the professional middle class.
Felicity Hunt, in her study of girls' education between 1850-1950, notes that "it was in the middle classes that girls and women were placed in separate institutions" (1987, pxii). Mary Evans recalls that the pupils at her own state-funded day school in the 1950s were uniformly middle-class.
Arriving at grammar school on the first day of the first term, the most striking characteristic of the other new pupils was that they too arrived in cars, from detached homes and with standard English voices. Everybody was fully equipped with the expensive uniform, and everyone could be reliably expected to own books and pens. (Evans, 1991, p26)
By the 1960s there was widespread concern about the social divisiveness of private boarding schools, and the 1968 Newsom Report described public schools as belonging, "in a remarkable degree, to a world of their own", due to class and sex segregation during term time that often extended to the holidays (pp55-58). The Report continues:
The public schools are not divisive simply because they are exclusive. An exclusive institution becomes divisive when it arbitrarily confers upon its members advantages and powers over the rest of society. The public schools confer such advantages on an arbitrarily selected membership, which already starts with an advantageous position in life. (Newsom, 1968, pp60-61)
At real schools as at the Chalet School, the pupils actually
held more power in terms of class than their teachers, who usually needed
to earn their own living. Many of the pupils would go on to be supported
financially by their parents and/or husbands, and could work voluntarily.
Frith points out that the very representation of femininity in the genre of girls' school stories gives girls far more power than the ideology portrayed in other specialist media such as girls' magazines allows.
To be assertive, physically active, daring, ambitious, is not a source of tension. In the absence of boys, girls "break bounds", have adventures, transgress rules, catch spies. There is no taboo on public speech: in innumerable school stories, girls hold and address a tense, packed meeting. . . The institutions within the school - clubs, teams, magazines - are initiated, organised and controlled by the girls themselves, sometimes by girls as young as 12. (Steedman, Urwin and Walkerdine, 1985, pp121-122)
In addition, having a traditionally "feminine"
appearance does not stop girls from exercising this power in the "Chalet
School" series: "Peggy was slight and dainty, very pretty and
gentle as a rule; but no-one could better her discipline when she chose"
(Brent-Dyer, 1952a, p47).
Girls are also seen to be physically powerful on some
occasions, although men do carry out physically difficult rescues.
For example, in The Chalet School Does It Again (1955) new girl
Prunella Davidson dives into Lake Lucerne to rescue Margot Maynard after
Margot falls into the water. The rescue is completed by a boatman and a
doctor, but it is Prunella who has saved Margot's life (Brent-Dyer, 1955b,
pp143-145). In the following book, A Chalet Girl From Kenya (1955),
new girl Jo Scott prevents Emerence from falling down a cliff face by taking
Emerence's full weight in her arms. In this instance the rescue is completed
by Mary-Lou, a pupil, and Nancy Wilmot, a staff member and former pupil
(Brent-Dyer, 1955c, pp198-200). Later in the series Mary-Lou rescues a
new member of staff, Kathy Ferrars, by pulling her off the ice when the
glacier on which they are standing begins to break up (Brent-Dyer, 1957a,
The physical strength of girls which Brent-Dyer describes
here contrasts sharply with the many incidents where girls become ill or
are injured (see 6: I.and
where Brent-Dyer portrays a much more fragile image of femininity. Girls
are seen as physically vulnerable to the stresses and strains of normal
life, and must not over-exert themselves. For example, in The Chalet
School and Jo (1931) Miss Wilson (Bill) forbids the Guides to take
more than three badge exams in a term: "You have your schoolwork as
well, Jo, and this is the hot-weather term. There will be the excitement
of Oberammergau at half-term, and you can't possibly do all this and keep
fit" (Brent-Dyer, 1931, p38).
Later in the series, in Three Go to the Chalet School (1949) Brent-Dyer warns her readers of the dangers of over-work, using Mary-Lou as an example. Mary-Lou wants to move to a higher form in the school in order to be with her older friend Clem Barras, so asks Clem to give her extra teaching after lights-out in the room they both share. Soon Mary-Lou begins to run a fever and becomes delirious. Miss Annersley tells Clem:
The human brain can only absorb so much knowledge at a time. . . If you over-walk, then your legs are too tired to go on; and if you over-eat, you are sick. It is just the same thing with your brain. If you try to cram too much into it, it goes on strike sooner or later. . . You are never to do lessons, either your own or someone else's, out of the proper hours. (Brent-Dyer, 1949, p391)
This image of feminine fragility may have its roots in
late nineteenth century concerns about girls' health, when psychiatrists
claimed that educating adolescent girls to a similar standard to boys would
endanger girls' mental and reproductive health because of their "weaker"
constitutions (Showalter, 1987, pp124-125). These concerns continued into
the first quarter of the twentieth century, so Brent-Dyer would have been
aware of them both as a pupil and as a teacher. As I have discussed,
it is possible to interpret the stress which Brent-Dyer places on the school's
function to protect the pupils' health as a means of extending the choices
available to the girls rather than limiting them, thus increasing their
power, and it is probable that she genuinely believed that girls' health
Girls' power is not limited to the school;
Joey in particular is seen to be a very powerful figure in all spheres
while still at school. The most dramatic example of this is in The Princess
of the Chalet School (1927): when Joey discovers that Elisaveta, the
Crown Princess of Belsornia, has been kidnapped Joey follows her and rescues
her single-handedly. Brent-Dyer writes that if the kidnapper, Elisaveta's
cousin Prince Cosimo, "had realised what she [Joey] was he might have
reconsidered his plans again" (Brent-Dyer, 1927, p91). Brent-Dyer
stresses that Cosimo is dangerous and might consider killing Joey (Brent-Dyer,
1927, p116), so Joey is shown to be extremely powerful by outwitting him.
This episode is one of several occasions in the series where a rescue outside
the school sphere is carried out by a girl instead of a man - Joey outsmarts
not only Cosimo and his servant but also beats Jem Russell, a royal equerry
and Frieda's father to find Elisaveta. Significantly this is by far the
most dangerous rescue which is carried out by any character, male or female,
as well as the one which Brent-Dyer describes in most detail.
Similarly in a later book, The Chalet School in Exile (1940), it is Jo and Robin who tackle a Nazi mob which is attacking a Jewish neighbour, and this precipitates their flight from Austria. It is Miss Wilson who plans their immediate escape, although Jack Maynard and Gottfried Mensch lead them out of the country afterwards. On other occasions during the war girls rescue two men from a burning plane, while the doctors do not arrive until later (Brent-Dyer, 1940, pp296-297). Girls also discover the mystery of who has been showing lights after black-out when the army has failed to do so (Brent-Dyer, 1941, pp126-129). Perhaps it is significant that it is the pupils - girls - who are able to exercise power outside the sphere of the school, while women's power outside the school is limited. Adolescence can then be seen as a transitional period, whereafter girls are granted more power at school - they can become prefects and later teachers - while suffering a corresponding loss of power in the wider community. Joey in particular is afraid that this will happen, and says so when she begins her last term at school.
I shall just stay at home, and help with the children and practise my singing, and so on. It does not appeal to me after the full life we lead here - it seems so - so little, somehow. It's just doing little bits of things that aren't important. (Brent-Dyer, 1935, p19)
In fact Joey remains the most powerful female character in the series, perhaps because after Brent-Dyer repositions the series in The Chalet School in Exile (1940) she describes Joey as remaining in part "a Chalet School girl" for the rest of the series. For example, when Mary-Lou first meets Jo she:
came out and played hide and seek all over the garden with them, conducting herself as if she were little older than - say Clem! She could beat them all at tree-climbing, and she could run like a hare. . . Mrs Maynard was like a schoolgirl let loose (Brent-Dyer, 1949, p325)
Later Brent-Dyer writes that: "Everyone who knew
her could have told you that there were times when she seemed very little
removed from the most beloved Head Girl the Chalet School had ever known",
and that "Privately she [Carola] was thinking that Mrs Maynard talked
more like one of her own nieces . . . than any other grown-up she had ever
met" (Brent-Dyer, 1951a, pp12,63).
Joey therefore remains in part eternally adolescent, at the height of her powers for the rest of her life. Accordingly Brent-Dyer describes her as very dynamic and energetic, with great physical presence and rapid changes of mood, as the following example will show. Taken from Changes for the Chalet School (1953), I have isolated the authorial descriptions of Jo from an episode which takes place on her return to the Chalet School after a year's stay in Canada. At this point she has eight children.
A newcomer stood grinning at them - Biddy said later on that the wonder was the top of her head didn't come off! - as she stood with a hand on either stanchion, regarding them with black eyes that danced with mischief. . . Jo plumped down on the nearest table and smiled infectiously at them. . . Jo paused and her eyes danced wickedly. . . Joey kissed her and said plaintively. . . she added cheerfully. . . Jo laughed. . . Jo shook her black head vigorously. . . Jo agreed, quite unabashed. . . Miss Norman had once said of Jo that she was like a fresh breeze, blowing all the cobwebs away, and she had certainly contrived to do it on this occasion. . . Jo chuckled as she turned brilliant black eyes on her. . . She twinkled at Miss Derwent. . . Jo retorted sweetly . . . Jo calmed down. . . Jo nodded, compressing her lips. . . forcing herself to speak lightly. . . Jo said calmly. . . Jo told her crushingly. . . Jo scolded. . . Jo suddenly grinned. . . Jo shook her black head with its heavy earphones of plaits so vehemently that several hairpins fell out and tails of hair appeared. . . Jo chuckled. . . Then she whirled round. . . Jo bounced off her table. . . And she whirled out of the room, leaving the staff in peals of laughter over her wild flight. (Brent-Dyer, 1953b, pp74-84)
Brent-Dyer's use of verbs and adverbs to describe what
is in essence a conversation serves to underline Joey's active, positive
qualities, and thus the personal power which she possesses.
The majority of
the women characters who appear in the Chalet School belong to one of two
types: former pupils; and staff members (who may also be former pupils).
Most of the former pupils who are not staff members appear in the books
as married women, or, very occasionally, as career women, and Brent-Dyer
treats the rest as older girls. Thus women characters tend to occupy one
of two roles, as teachers or as wives and mothers, with several characters
making the transition from the former to the latter as the series continues.
Within the school, teachers are the group with the most power. They have
their own hierarchy, based on age and seniority, with the Headmistress(es)
in control. Madge occasionally intervenes when questions such as where
the school is to be based or whether the uniform should be changed are
concerned and she appoints the Headmistress(es), but she leaves the running
of the school to the staff.
The most common way in which the staff members exercise
their power is in upholding school rules and discipline, and in punishing
transgressors. As already stated, much of this power is delegated to the
prefects, who the girls hold in more awe than they do most of the staff.
But Brent-Dyer makes clear that the ultimate authority and the person who
the girls respect most is the headmistress, and it is her punishments which
are dreaded most.
For example, in The New Chalet School (1938) Joey and the prefects explain to some new girls that the girls whom the prefects have caught breaking rules will be forced to accept the prefects' punishment because otherwise these girls will be reported to the Headmistress.
"Why? Is a report such a dreadful thing?" asked Hilary. Joey began to count off on her fingers. "One: you're gated for a longer or shorter period. Two: you lose all privileges, such as fiction from the library, exeats, and so on. Three: no Kaffee und Kuchen out of doors. Four: no going to camp - and lots more little things like that. Those are more or less invariable. The rest depends in what the crime was. But none of it's nice." (Brent-Dyer, 1938, pp38-39 of Part Two)
Later in the series, in Lavender Laughs in the Chalet School (1943), Brent-Dyer writes that:
No-one liked to be sent to the library. She [Miss Annersley] was very popular out of it, but it was on record that Sybil Russell, who was quite fond of her out of school hours, had to be carried to the library door on one occasion when Miss Norman had sent the young lady for a well-deserved Head's interview! When Sybil felt like that, it may be imagined that the rest were even more in fear of the Head when they were sent to her for unpleasant reasons. (Brent-Dyer, 1943, p71)
Excepting Miss Bubb,
the Headmistresses all have powerful physical presences, expressed through
their voices, appearances and facial expressions. For example, in Bride
Leads the Chalet School (1953) Miss Annersley subdues a gathering of
the whole school when she asks them who is responsible for wrecking Bride's
study. Brent-Dyer describes her as sounding "her grimmest", speaking
in "freezing tones" (Brent-Dyer, 1953a, p223). When she discovers
the culprits "nervous members of her audience shivered, so icy was
her voice" (Brent-Dyer, 1953a, p225).
However, although girls fear being sent to the Head, none of these women except Miss Bubb use their power to intimidate or bully girls into obedience. Instead, they talk to the girls and explain to them exactly what is wrong before pronouncing punishment, combined with warnings about what will happen if girls do not accept these punishments and try to reform. For example, in Shocks for the Chalet School (1952), Emerence is asked to tell Miss Annersley why she has behaved in an untrustworthy manner by breaking bounds in order to block up a drain with a scarecrow, causing a flood. Emerence:
was biting her lower lip hard in a desperate effort not
to cry. If the Head had scolded, it would have been easier; but this quiet
reasoning was very much more effective in her present state. . . Emerence
knew that once she spoke the tears must come and she was determined not
to cry before these people.
But she had to deal with a more obstinate person than herself. Miss Annersley was determined to break down the barrier, for she felt that once the child had given way, it would be possible to handle her and turn her into something more like the sort of girl the Chalet School prided itself on turning out.
"Why, Emerence?" she repeated.
Emerence made a last wild effort to control herself. Unfortunately for that, she glanced up and met the Head's eyes. What she saw in them struck home. She gulped once or twice, twisted her hands together firecely and then, something gave way. She dropped on her knees at the Head's side, buried her head in her lap and wept long and loud. (Brent-Dyer, 1952b, pp147-148)
As I have already discussed,
Brent-Dyer uses the pastoral convention common in children's literature
of presenting all her child characters as essentially good and capable
of reform. This is perhaps one reason why Miss Annersley's superior disciplinary
power is associated with her ability to appeal to the essential goodness
in a girl's character and to persuade a girl to change her behaviour.
Another example of this comes in Bride Leads the Chalet School (1953) when Miss Annersley asks new girl Diana Skelton to explain why she has wrecked Bride's study.
A moment the Head paused. Then she held out her hand and
her voice was very kind as she said, "Come here, Diana."
No one ever knew what passed after that, for neither of the two ever spoke of it to anyone. But by the time the interview had ended, Diana's hard armour of pride had broken down and the tears she shed were not only because she had been found out. Somehow - how, even she herself never really knew - Miss Annersley had managed to pierce the thick skin of self-satisfaction, conceit and vanity which had hitherto protected her and the real Diana was before her. (Brent-Dyer, 1953a, pp237-238)
As with Emerence's "barrier", Diana's "armour"
and "thick skin" isolate her "real", essentially good
character, and only Miss Annersley has the power to break through it. Elsewhere
in the series the other Heads apart from Miss Bubb, and occasionally the
adult Joey, also have this power.
This method of discipline has also been popular with liberal educationalists for much of the twentieth century. Jonathan Croall writes that of all the educational theories of A.S. Neill, founder of the Summerhill progressive school, "absolutely paramount was his belief that children are innately good" (Croall, 1983a, p390). Croall points out that "Neill's most spectacular achievement at Summerhill was with problem children, and here he made a strong and lasting impression on many English teachers" (Croall, 1983a, p392). Neill's achievements were based on treating children with love and respect. Walkerdine has pointed out that in the liberationism upon which 'progressive' education was founded in the sixties, the position of women teachers was vital.
It is love which will win the day, and it is the benevolent gaze of the teacher which will secure freedom from a cruel authority (in the family as well as the school). Through the figure of the maternal teacher the harsh power of the authoritarian father will be converted into the soft benevolence of the bourgeois mother. (Walkerdine, 1990, pp18-19)
It is therefore possible that Brent-Dyer's descriptions
of Miss Annersley's successful methods of dealing with transgressors reflect
the growing support for progressivism amongst educationalists during the
period in which Brent-Dyer was writing, which Brent-Dyer would be aware
of through her teaching career.
Brent-Dyer portrays the Headmistresses as the most powerful individuals
in the school and although individual teachers and prefects are also powerful,
much of the power which women wield in the "Chalet School" series
is wielded collectively rather than individually. Both staff and prefects
take many decisions as groups rather than as individuals, and on other
occasions their leaders, the Head Girl and Headmistress, consult their
colleagues before taking action (eg Brent-Dyer, 1930, pp61-62, 66-67; Brent-Dyer,
1935, pp59-60; Brent-Dyer, 1959a, pp7-13). The community is considered
to be more important than any individual within it, and both staff and
prefects use their power to benefit the community. For example, Madge,
as the only person who is more powerful than Miss Bubb, asks her to leave
because: "I do not choose to have all our work undone to suit any
single person!" (Brent-Dyer, 1944, p102). Collective action has been
seen by feminists as integral to the successful overcoming of disadvantage
(Humm, 1989, p31), and so it is possible to interpret Brent-Dyer's portrayal
of women's power in the "Chalet School" series as one which offers her
readers a more desirable alternative to the traditional patriarchal hierarchy.
One school rule which both staff and prefects unite to
uphold is the rule against the use of slang. For example, in Peggy of
the Chalet School (1950) Head Girl Peggy makes Sybil Russell and Blossom
Willoughby pay double fines for saying "smashing" (Brent-Dyer,
1950b, p124). Brent-Dyer defends this policy as "absolutely necessary,
since it was not to be expected that the mothers of girls who were not
English would be pleased if their daughters picked up vocabularies of English
slang" (Brent-Dyer, 1927, p39). (Note that it is mothers who will
not be pleased rather than fathers; women control these type of domestic
matters.) Brent-Dyer's treatment of slang is particularly interesting because
slang can be seen as the product of a particular sub-culture's appropriation
of the language of the main culture for themselves, and in some cases can
even be viewed as a separate dialect. The staff and prefects' struggle
to force the girls to speak Standard English can therefore be viewed as
a power struggle between the younger, pre-adolescent and adolescent girls
and the older girls/staff. Significantly, although girls are continually
facing punishments for speaking slang (eg Brent-Dyer, 1950b, p142; 1951a,
pp86-89), they all continue to use it, including the adult Joey (eg Brent-Dyer,
1965a, p26). Once again the power structure inherent in the texts is ambiguous,
giving girls power when they would initially appear to be denied it, leaving
the staff and prefects with less power than they have at face value, although
their power undeniably exists.
Members of staff also have power by virtue of the fact that they are in paid employment, and so are financially independent of men and their families. Madge founds the Chalet School in order to gain financial independence, pointing out to her twin Dick that in any case he does not have the financial power to pay for herself and Joey: "You can't keep us on your pay; that's quite out of the question!" (Brent-Dyer, 1925, p6). At the beginning of the book Dick tries to assume responsibility for Joey and Madge:
"If only I knew what to do with you girls!"
said Dick in worried tones.
"Oh, you needn't worry about us!" replied Madge.
"Talk sense! I'm the only man there is in the family - except Great- Uncle William; and he's not much use!"
"Jolly well he isn't! Poor dear! He's all gout and crutches." And Madge threw back her head with a merry laugh. (Brent-Dyer, 1925, p5)
The raison d'etre for the series is therefore Madge's
assertion of her independence and ability to care and provide for Joey
and herself single-handedly, which Dick does not possess. Dick knows that
"he had neither the strength of will nor the authority to turn her
from her purpose" (Brent-Dyer, 1925, p7). Dick then leaves to go to
India and rarely appears in the series again, leaving Madge as the most
powerful member of the family (Great-Uncle William is never a contender).
Madge continues to have financial control of the school for the rest of
the series, retaining power both in the school and in the outside world
although she loses power in the domestic sphere on marriage. Joey also
becomes financially independent shortly after leaving school when her first
book is published, and remains a "career woman" while married.
Staff members retain the ability to be financially independent after they
marry and leave employment, as do the many former pupils who have trained
for a career, leaving both groups with more power than would otherwise
be the case.
However, when women characters marry
they do lose power to their husbands. Madge in particular becomes a much
weaker character once she has married, perhaps because as Jo becomes an
adult she takes over from Madge as the most personally powerful of the
two sisters. For example, in The New Chalet School (1938), which
takes place when Jo has left school and sold her first book, Madge collapses
after the Balbini twins run off with her baby Sybil. "The relief of
knowing that her husband would be at hand to take over the worst of the
trouble on his broad shoulders had been too much for Madge, and even as
he rang off, she fainted quietly away" (Brent-Dyer, 1938, p273). Jo
is left to nurse Madge, while Jem searches for the children with a colleague,
Gottfried Mensch, and the baby is eventually discovered by another man,
Herr Anserl. When the children are returned Jem stops Madge from getting
out of bed. "'Indeed you aren't!' A masculine voice spoke emphatically"
(Brent-Dyer, 1938, p286).
Joey retains more power in her marriage, but is still
seen to defer to Jack. For example, on one occasion he addresses Jo as
"young woman" and instructs her to "go and get yourself
and the babes ready" (Brent-Dyer, 1940, p317). Jo readily accepts
Jack's authority: "Jo smiled, and went off obediently" (Brent-Dyer,
1940, p318). Former pupils are seen to have similar relationships. For
example, in The Chalet School and Jo (1931) Gottfried "smiled
down" at his wife, former Head Girl Gisela Marani, and calls her "little
wife"; when Gisela replies to him she speaks "softly" (Brent-Dyer,
1931, p160). However, Brent-Dyer only refers to these relationships briefly
and sporadically, and on other occasions Jo and Jack are shown to have
a much more equal relationship (eg Brent-Dyer, 1950a, pp146-148).
As well as having more power than women in marriage, men also have greater physical power. For example, in Eustacia Goes to the Chalet School (1930) a group of girls have to be rescued by village men after they have been forced to spend the night on the mountainside.
A simple stretcher had been brought, and on it a hefty giant of a man laid Miss Wilson . . . Another made Violet climb up on his back, and two more accounted for Dorothy and Ruth. Herr Siebur took up the poles at one end of the stretcher, and the big man who had arranged "Bill" took up the others. The four remaining were expected to look after themselves to a certain extent, though one man walked with each of them. (Brent-Dyer, 1930, p115)
Later Eustacia is rescued by the village men when she
runs away. The men are described as "trusty fellows" with "strong
arms" (Brent-Dyer, 1930, p154); Eustacia, on the other hand, is severely
injured as a result of her flight.
After the school returns to the Alps, Brent-Dyer writes about similar rescues. For example, in the first of the 'Oberland' books, The Chalet School and Barbara (1954), the girls are rescued by the village men and the doctors when they are trapped because of a storm.
This time, there was no need to fear the storm. The two men had brought big lanterns hung on the end of long poles and when they heard the distant sound of the train, they waved them vigorously and it drew up for just long enough to take the party on board. Ten minutes later, they had reached the Gornetz Platz safely. Nor was there any need to worry about how they would get back to the school, for Dr Maynard and one of his colleagues was waiting for them with cars and they were all bundled in and whisked off home. (Brent-Dyer, 1954b, pp134-135)
All the responsibility - and power
- has been taken over by male characters with greater physical strength,
who can keep the girls safe when the girls cannot look after themselves.
Brent-Dyer does not confine her descriptions of male strength to rescues;
for example Dickie Christy's father, owner of the school buildings when
the school moves to St Briavel's Island, is described as vaulting out of
the open window after a conversation with Miss Annersley (Brent-Dyer, 1953b,
p21) - women use doors and are confined by social conventions.
Significantly, male characters
are at their most powerful during the war years, when Europe was effectively
controlled by military authorities who were of course almost exclusively
male. The Chalet School in Exile (1940) begins with the annexation
of Austria by Germany in 1938, when Jem Russell assumes control of the
school from his wife. Madge tells Robin that: "Jem feels he had a
good deal of responsibility with the Sanatorium, and the School, too"
(Brent-Dyer, 1940, p17). In fact the school is Madge's responsibility,
as she owns it. Jem orders Miss Annersley, the Head, to gather her staff
together, and tells them they must move the school to the Sonnalpe where
he lives at half term (Brent-Dyer, 1940, pp25-28). He tells them that he
is doing this because they need male protection: he admits that "Madge
thinks I'm making a fuss about nothing"; but his wishes prevail (Brent-Dyer,
1940, p30). From this point onwards Jem makes all the major decisions regarding
the school for the rest of the book.
Men generally have more power during the war years than
women. For example, Jack accompanies Jo, Robin and Hilary to hide the Peace
League document from the Nazis because "We aren't allowed to go on
our own" (Brent-Dyer, 1940, p59). At this point Jo is a financially-independent
adult. Later in the episode, when Robin and Hilary disappear, Jo collapses:
"'Jack, I can't bear it!' And half-fainting, Jo collapsed in the strong
arms holding her" (Brent-Dyer, 1940, p87). At the end of this episode
Joey has agreed to marry Jack; she is not strong enough to survive the
war on her own. She continues to be physically weak, becoming ill during
their escape to Guernsey (Brent-Dyer, 1940, p151) and later during their
escape from Guernsey to England (Brent-Dyer, 1941, pp29-33).
Further on in the book Jem is able defy the Gestapo and
stop the Gestapo from taking Joey away for questioning when Joey's and
Madge's protestations have failed. The Gestapo officer has "shrugged
his shoulders" and used "an insolent gesture" to Joey and
Madge, but to Jem the officer speaks "civilly". "He had
not realised that Miss Bettany might be under the protection of anyone
so powerful as the great doctor." Jem tells Joey "sternly"
to "hush", "I will see to all this" (Brent-Dyer, 1940,
pp106-108). This is men's business, and in this incident Jem seems to have
no more respect for his wife and sister-in-law than the Gestapo officer
does. At the end of the book, when all the main characters have reached
Guernsey safely, Bruno and Friedel tell more of the story of their escape
to Jack than to Jo - "Much was not fit to be repeated" (Brent-Dyer,
1940, p327). Joey is seen as too weak to be told what had happened, but
in denying her - and the readers - knowledge Brent-Dyer is also denying
In The Chalet School Goes To It (1941), Miss Annersley,
the most powerful character within the Chalet School community, is forced
to resort to subterfuge to calm down the local Colonel. Miss Annersley
asks the Colonel, who is convinced that the school is harbouring a spy,
for his advice about air-raid shelters, pretending to be unable to make
her own decision. Brent-Dyer portrays this as a very clever move, revealing
that Miss Annersley is indeed a powerful character who can outwit the head
of the local military. "Clever Miss Annersley! There was nothing the
Colonel liked so much as being asked for advice" (Brent-Dyer, 1941,
pp146-147). Perhaps one reason that Brent-Dyer may have portrayed female
characters as losing power to men in the wartime books was to convince
her readers that women were not responsible for the war or the crimes related
Instead Brent-Dyer describes her female characters as devoted to internationalism and peace, founding their own Chalet School Peace League. Cooper, Munich and Squier point out that:
The paradigmatic narrative of "men's wars" builds on the Western literary tradition celebrating "arms and the man", to figure a culture in which men fight while women remain at home preserving the domestic front. To perpetuate this polarized gender system, female complicity in warmaking has been overlooked. (Cooper, Munich and Squier, 1989, pxiii)
In addition to this, Brent-Dyer is working within many
of the conventions of classic children's literature,
and a portrayal of women actively involved in warmaking rather than in
peace initiatives would have contravened these. However, it is also true
that women did play a central role in the peace movement following the
war. For example, the National Assembly of Women was active in organising
around the issue of peace (Wilson, 1980, pp177-178).
Despite the emphasis which Brent-Dyer places on men's
superior power in the war years, this is not the most significant display
of men's power in the "Chalet School" series, since only six
books of the series were published in wartime. Neither is men's greater
physical strength and controlling role in relationships particularly significant,
since these characteristics are described only briefly. Instead men's greatest
power comes from their profession, because the overwhelming majority of
male characters are doctors. Male doctors are called in to the school when
characters suffer life-threatening illnesses or injuries, and spend the
rest of the time treating TB patients, whose only chance of survival lies
with the sanatorium staff. They are therefore seen as having a semi-godlike
power over life and death. Sontag points out that in typical accounts of
TB in the nineteenth century TB was represented as "the prototypical passive
death" (Sontag, 1979, p25). Patients were perceived as being extremely
passive, leaving an image of the doctors who treated them as extremely
active and positive.
While the doctors at Brent-Dyer's sanatorium are all men,
the majority of patients are women and children. The physical proximity
of the sanatorium to the school is a constant reminder of potential physical
weakness. However, the sanatorium can also function to reduce men's power
in the series. First, because of their work, men are usually absent from
the family home, leaving women in control of the domestic environment.
Second, the sanatorium provides former pupils and members of staff who
marry doctors a means of continuing their links with the school after marriage,
and thus the possibility of maintaining a self-identity within a marriage.
Third, it is men who are identified as carrying out caring, nurturing work
rather than women, as Brent-Dyer rarely describes women as carrying out
childcare or domestic work, and this type of work is more often identified
with women and is thus commonly seen as lacking importance. As with the
whole of the content of the Chalet School, then, analysis reveals mixed
and often contradictory messages which serve to expose the arbitrary and
shifting nature of what it has meant to be "female" in twentieth-century
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